Drew: Our discussions of Nightwing often find us exploring Dick’s identity. As a former-sidekick turned full-fledged superhero turned replacement-for-hero-he-sidekicked-for turned his own superhero again, it’s understandable that he might have some identity issues to work out, but what is identity in the first place? Is it fixed or dynamic? Does it stem from the person in question, or is it a series of expectations held in the world around them? In Nightwing 17, Kyle Higgins takes up these questions, yielding some rather unexpected results.
The issue opens with Alfred consoling Dick in the wake of Death of the Family. He offers Dick a sympathetic ear, but Dick assures him that he’s fine. Dick has more or less identical exchanges both in and out of costume with Commissioner Gordon, Christina (the young Acrobat from Haly’s), Lucius Fox, Sonia Branch, and Babs, all while Damian listens from the eaves. Contrary to what he keeps saying, Dick isn’t fine, and looses his cool while facing down some opportunistic thugs hoping to loot the ruins of Amusement Mile. Fortunately, Damian is there to stop Dick from doing anything he would regret, holding an impromptu intervention.
It’s a touching scene — demonstrating a deft understanding of both of these characters — but it’s over too soon. Dick and Damian have a fascinating relationship, and the exploration of Dick’s psyche is the emotional center of this issue. Unfortunately, it’s only allotted two pages, which doesn’t quite give it the space it needs to breathe, leading to a conclusion that feels a little pat in light of the 17 pages spent setting it up. I appreciate that each of those 17 pages serves a purpose in the overall narrative — even the looters in that fight scene comes back in the end — but I wish we could spend more time with these characters.
Speaking of the end, those looters do come back, bringing their spoils to “The Dealer,” a villain Dick faced down back in Snyder’s run on Detective Comics (collected in Batman: The Black Mirror, for those who haven’t read it). Specifically, they deliver the Flying Graysons uniform of one of Dick’s parents.
To say that this issue addresses Dick’s identity is an understatement. The main conflict finds him at odds with Robin, an alter ego he created. That’s symbolically loaded enough to carry most comics, but Dick and Damian also have their own history. Working closely with Damian as Robin must remind Dick (and us) of his time as Batman, a comparison that is emphasized further by the return of The Dealer, a villain from that specific time in Dick’s history. Add to that mix a few ex girlfriends and the outfit your parents died in, and you’re sure to bring up some hard memories. Dick insists to Damian that he’s “the one that doesn’t dwell,” but can he really help it when so much of his life returns with so much symbolic significance?
Of course, what really interests me in Damian’s assertion is that it’s an expectation he feels he has to live up to. He doesn’t necessarily want to be the rock, but because people think of him that way, he really has no choice. That’s an interesting take on identity, but one that works to slow any sense of personal growth. It’s a familiar feeling for anyone who can’t help but slip into old habits when they visit their parents, and this series seems poised to confront it head-on going forward. That’s an exciting direction for this series, but I can’t help but wish Higgins had done more with it here. Dick and Damian have such an interesting history, and I would love to feel a little more of the full weight of it here.
Scott, I’m curious if you also wanted more out of that scene, or if my own experience with those two characters is coloring my expectations unduly. If anything, between their pairing and the presence of the Dealer, this issue seems to presume some familiarity with Dick’s time as Batman. Did you find yourself feeling left out at all, or am I reading too much into the significance of those references?
Scott: Don’t overlook the possibility that I feel left out and you’re reading too much into those references. I mean, how could Dick and Damian’s history not inform this interaction? It must. Still, I think the dynamic between those two is apparent enough that this story works even without knowing the specifics of their relationship. Damian obviously looks up to Dick — he wears the guy’s old tights for chrissake! — so it doesn’t take much to understand his motivations in this issue.
I was hoping for more out of their scene together just because of the lengthy buildup. The scene is tipped not only by the cover of the issue, but three more times before Dick and Damian exchange words. I can only look at Damian peering down at Dick from a ledge so many times before I start rolling my eyes and thinking “Ok, I get it, Robin is going to play an important part in this issue.” On top of that, we get to hear Dick’s “I’m fine, I promise” plea six times in the first five scenes. Hasn’t Kyle Higgins heard of the rule of three? You know Dick must not really be doing fine when he doesn’t even notice that some kid has been spying on him for a week.
Or maybe Dick knew Damian was spying, and was just messing with him by having the exact same conversation with everyone he saw. “If you insist on eavesdropping, I’ll at least make it real boring for you.”
Drew, you mentioned that Damian feels like he has to live up to the expectations that Dick created for Robin. As a youngest child, I could totally relate to those feelings (and not just because I was always forced to play the Robin to Drew’s Batman when we were little). Growing up with two very involved, over-achieving brothers, I often found myself pursuing the same activities they had excelled in, unsure if it was out of my own interest or because those were the expectations set for me by my siblings. It’s tricky trying to walk in someone else’s footsteps while carving out your own sense of identity — something that makes you alternately resent and greatly appreciate your forerunners — and it’s interesting to see Damian experiencing the advantages and pitfalls of filling Dick’s shoes, er, lacey boots. As nice as it was to have teachers who loved me just because my brothers had made good impressions on them years before, it came with the pressure of having to try not to let them down.
Nightwing 17 offers an interesting role-reversal for Dick. We’re used to seeing him searching for his own identity, but during his interaction with Damian it becomes clear that he has crafted an identity that is unique, consistant, and worth living up to. Dick’s time as Batman is an important part of his past, but Damian shows him that he really is his own man, and for the first time, Dick looks like he’s doing fine.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to DC’s website and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?